Briana Trautman-Maier

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Butterflies Are Free

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/9/06
by Tom Chesek

Ignore the title, a quote from Dickens best relegated to a vintage school-book cover or inspirational fridge magnet. Better still, try to disregard the whole central device of the differently abled character emerging from his cocoon and spreading his wings—a potentially sticky swamp of molasses in the wrong hands.

Now onstage at Monmouth University's Lauren K. Woods Theatre, the Leonard Gershe play "Butterflies Are Free" is a modestly framed snapshot from that uncertain era between the so-called golden age of Broadway and the bloated, bus-trip British imports that would come to dominate the latter-day White Way.

Produced and directed by the school's music and theater arts chairman John J. Burke—and playing Wednesday through Sunday evenings on the West Long Branch campus until June 18—"Butterflies" is the first in the school's annual Shadow Lawn Stage presentations for 2006.

While the straight script by the late composer and librettist Gershe (a 1969 hit starring Keir Dullea, Eileen Heckart and a young Blythe Danner) is basically a contemporary to "Little Murders" and "Gemini"—two very edgy black comedies that Burke has staged in recent seasons—it's actually much more nimble and streamlined than those often violent and foul-mouthed slices of domestic fear and loathing. It's also much more commonly revived (in fact, it was staged at a Shore-area dessert theater just a few months back). As such, it comes across as considerably less dated than many post-Summer of Love extravaganzas.
Set in a seedy Manhattan apartment that's a half-finished study in exposed plumbing, stained sheetrock and orange-crate functionality (actually another characteristically detail-intensive environment by designer Fred Del Guercio), "Butterflies" unfolds over the course of a single day; a day in which two next-door neighbors meet cute.

Separated only by a locked bedroom door and a "Kleenex" wall, Don (Brendan Ryan) and Jill (Briana Trautman-Maier) are a couple of new arrivals in the big city, with a lot in common: She's an aspiring actress who's escaped a short-lived marriage in L.A.; he's an aspiring singer-songwriter who's loosed himself from the Saks Fifth Avenue apron strings of his mother, a "tight-assed matron from Scarsdale."

As Jill finds out about 10 minutes into the proceedings, he's also been blind since birth—a fact that the confident Don casually glosses over, even as it's provided subject matter for an irksomely successful series of children's books authored by Don's mother, Mrs. Baker (Linda Cameron). For the young man in the midst of a two-month trial separation from his overprotective mom, Jill is more than just that barefoot, peasant-bloused, post-hippie hottie next door who sports false eyelashes and misquotes Dylan Thomas. She's the personification of another way of life; an effervescent muse and a free spirit with no qualms about stripping down to her undies and climbing the ladder to his rickety loft bed.

Even for the sightless Donnie, things take on an entirely different aspect by the pall of evening than they do by light of day—with a surprise visit by Mrs. Baker and an impending audition for Jill detouring the plot into some turbulent and unpredictable waters. This nominal romantic comedy navigates some pretty dramatic channels for a good deal of its second act, and what remains of lasting value in Gershe's script is the bittersweet and finely-wrought drama of relationships at its core.
Under Burke's direction, the players (including Bob Senkewicz as a stage director of the classic casting-couch school) work hard to give their characters a dimensionality beyond their first impressions—maybe none more than Cameron, whose supposedly domineering mom is far from the ogre she's originally painted as.

Ryan endeavors to present an unsentimental, decidedly un-corny take on a character who initially appears almost too well-adjusted—although the actor's tattoos look entirely out of place on Don, and the brief snippets we hear of his singing voice make us want to encourage the earnest young dreamer to keep his day job as a sheltered momma's boy.
In a part most famously played by young Goldie Hawn in her lovable-ditz days, Trautman-Maier is a body and brain in constant motion; exuding a neighborly '70s sexiness as well as what could only be categorized as a classically blond brand of wisdom.


Two River Times
by Philip Dorian

'Tis said, "Write what you know." Hugh Leonard has lived for all but ten of his 80 years in County Dublin, Ireland, where he was born and raised. His play Da is set there. (Da is the Irish-familiar for father, or dad.) Leonard was adopted in infancy, at a time (1926) when illegitimate birth carried a stigma. The character whose family conflict is at the heart of Da was similarly adopted. Indeed, the playwright has acknowledged that Da is semi-autobiographical.

Da (Ed Schiff, left) confronts his son Charlie (Bill Timoney) in Da at Shadow Lawn Stage.

The 1978 Tony Award-winning play is this year's 'Irish entry' in producer-director John Burke's Shadow Lawn Stage season. (The genre is perhaps the richest source of ethnic stage literature over the last 100-plus years. And counting.)

A recent quote by Leonard sums up his—and the play's—core philosophy: "Life is not a culmination of the past... we are all the foolishness and the crimes... and the kindnesses we did. I hate to think of life as if we understood time."

Leonard's modesty is showing. The distinguishing facet of Da is the ingenious way in which it manipulates time, merging past and present seamlessly in both character and situation. The memory play is set in 1968. Middle-aged Charlie (Bill Timoney), a writer, returns to Dublin from London for the funeral of his father, who had labored nearly 60 years as an obsequious gardener for people he considered his betters. In the course of Charlie's reflections, characters from his past, most significantly da himself (Ed Schiff), appear in flashbacks and in the ghostly present. Charlie's long-suffering late mother (Linda Cameron) proves to have been a steadying presence, even as da bullied the family with acid commentary and unwarranted recrimination. Even from the grave, so to speak, his once-controlling personality haunts Charlie yet.

As a child of seven, Charlie worshipped his father. (Timoney acts that young age to perfection; he 'opens up' his face and voice and childish innocence gushes out.) But soon enough the coarse parent embarrasses, disappoints and infuriates the son.
Ms. Cameron draws an accurate portrait of the forbearing Irish wife. The scene where da nearly punches her is scary, but you know he'd better not try it.

The interaction between grown Charlie and his 25-year younger self (Brendan Ryan) is the production's best feature. Their scenes, the playwright's look back to his own youth, are the best written, and Ryan actually begins to look like a younger Timoney. Of their father, mature Charlie tells younger Charlie "You're as dead as he is." It's the past he means of course, but his young self's unrealized aspirations won't leave him in peace. How many of us are at 40 what we envisioned at 18?

In a touching scene beautifully acted by Ryan and Briana Trautman-Maier, da even thwarts teen-aged Charlie's sexual exploration. (With only a few lines—and no histrionics—Trautman-Maier breaks your heart.)

Da is a complex character, drolly comic one minute, hateful the next. Mr. Schiff seems to have a handle on the mercurial behavior, but he's way over-brogued and difficult to understand. About half of his dialogue is lost in his extreme Irish accent, and the production suffers for that. (The percentage noted was a consensus of a dozen or so audience members polled on opening night.)

Veteran Monmouth County actor Bill Rogers acquits himself very well as young Charlie's pal; their friendship is believable. Kyle Bradford, playing Charlie's austere former employer, delivers important exposition in a low monotone that nearly obscures its significance. Static staging (director Burke) doesn't help that scene—or one where da grovels to an employer, played stiffly by Annette Hillary.

Other aspects of Burke's direction are more effective. The present-and-past Charlies relate very well, and he makes good use of the innovative set (Fred del Guercio), whose many different playing areas enhance the time-jumps. Costumer Linda Delaney is true to both present and past, artfully resisting the temptation to tart up the young girl.

Da is a good play. As in the best Irish drama, comedy is never far below the surface. And vice versa. The very ending of the play, Da literally chasing Charlie, is overkill. An earlier exchange says it better. As young Charlie finally leaves the family home, he says, "It's the beginning." His mother watches him depart. "Well, that's the end of it," she murmurs. Life-changes mark beginnings, sure. But ends? Not necessarily.

SubUrban Legend

Mike & Kacey in the Morning (Kacey Morabito)

"This is the best original comedy I've seen. Smart—funny—Jocelyn Beard should be writing for Desperate Housewives. Benjamin Sands and Stephanie Dorian sparkle like Megan Mulally and Sean Hayes in Will and Grace—! and, TWICE I checked my program—I was SURE the twins were two different people - Briana Trautman-Maier is impressive!"